Sunday, June 17, 2012

No free ride.

If you told most future parents it would cost about $235,000 to raise a kid to age 18, how many would go through with it? And that doesn’t include college.

Adjusted for inflation, the number is a little closer to $295,000 for a kid born in 2011. That’s a sobering thought on this Father’s Day weekend, especially in an economy where good jobs are rare and even professionals struggle to find gainful employment.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its kid-cost estimate this week, including this breakdown.

Childcare and education (18%)
Food (16%)
Transportation (14%)
Healthcare (8%)
Miscellaneous expenses (8%)
Clothing (6%)

The line that jumped out at me was transportation; it’s as much as healthcare and duds combined, and just shy of food costs. Based on the cost estimate, 14% equates to over $30,000 before adjusting for inflation.

Why is it so expensive to move kids around until age 18? Does that assume parents buy Suzy and Johnny cars at 16? I doubt it.

My guess: it reflects the future costs of vehicles and energy. This should pressure families to move closer to schools, their houses of worship and other activities.
That should lead to the growth of central cities as families cocoon around convenience and urban communities.

If you think about it, it costs society significant sums to build roads and provide infrastructure for a sprawling suburbia. Taxpayers subsidize real estate developments in remote locations, an hour from our urban centers.

In Michigan, the Oakland County and Macomb County Executives, L. Brooks Patterson and Mark Hackel made an ironic announcement recently.  They want Detroit to reimburse them for police assistance their counties will provide during the city’s annual fireworks display and International Freedom Festival celebration. This was their firm public position, despite the fact that tens of thousands will pour into Detroit from the suburbs to enjoy the show.

Maybe Wayne County should return the favor every time residents of Oakland and Macomb come to use our airport. Perhaps out-of-county travelers should pay an extra surcharge since their cops don’t police the facility. Same thing at Comerica Park, Joe Louis Arena, Ford Field, etc. Detroit cops secure every one of those events, and manage traffic before and after the games.

The era of the free lunch is over and costs deserve to be shared. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and whatever other clichĂ© you’d like to insert. The lack of shared responsibility and public goods has financial consequences. Cities have been shouldering the burden for the suburbs for too long. 

If communities want to encourage families with children to move in, they should provide sidewalks, bike trails and convenient mass transit. In the metro Detroit area, cities like Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods offer all those benefits close enough to the Motor City’s central business district, cultural center and our international airport.

I grew up on the West side of Detroit, where my mom still lives.  My family didn’t have a car until I was ten years old. Mom and Dad were immigrants and they put Catholic school tuition for four kids ahead of an automobile or other conveniences like dining out. They made the tough sacrifices that included schlepping home groceries in a cart from shops on the main street in our neighborhood. And we kids did our part. We walked to school, church and all our athletic and extra curricular activities. And yes, it was miles in the snow, round trip!

Of the items listed by the Department of Agriculture, transportation seems the easiest cost to control. The message for parents is, driving kids to soccer, dance and every other event in their lives not only teaches dependency and a sense of entitlement, it’s expensive.

In a nation that’s battling childhood obesity sounds like a little more walking is just what the doctor and your accountant ordered.

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